Louisiana cemetery removes ‘whites-only’ provision after Black deputy denied burial

LAKE CHARLES, La. — Board members of a Louisiana cemetery met in an emergency session Thursday to remove a whites-only provision from its sales contracts. The meeting and an apology by cemetery officials come after a cemetery official denied burial to a Black sheriff’s deputy.

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H. Creig Vizena, board president for Oaklin Springs Baptist Cemetery near Oberlin, said he was stunned and ashamed to learn that the family of Allen Parish sheriff’s Deputy Darrell Semien had been told the law enforcement could not be buried in the southwestern Louisiana cemetery because he was Black.

“I’m still very ashamed of what happened,” Vizena told KATC. “Who wouldn’t be?”

Update 12:26 p.m. ET Jan. 29: The Oaklin Springs Cemetery Board decided during its emergency meeting Thursday to remove language that read “The Right of Burial of the Remains of White Human Beings” from its burial contracts.

The updated contract now reads, “the right of burial of the remains of human beings,” KATC reported.

Original report: Semien, 55, died of cancer on Sunday, KPLC reported. According to his obituary, Semien, nicknamed “Soul,” was “a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, godfather and a friend to all.”

I honestly can’t believe this just happened . I just went to oaklin springs cemetery to pick a plot for my husband to be...

Posted by Karla Semien on Tuesday, January 26, 2021

After being diagnosed with cancer in December, Semien told his family he wanted to be buried at Oaklin Springs Cemetery because it was near his home, KPLC reported. When Semien’s wife, Karla Semien went to buy a plot, she said she was shocked to learn there was a whites-only clause in the cemetery’s contract.

“It was in their bylaws that the cemetery was ‘whites only,’” Karla Semien told KPLC. “I just kinda looked at her and she said, ‘There’s no coloreds allowed.’”

“Just blatantly, with no remorse, ‘I can’t sell you a plot for your husband,’” Semien’s daughter, Kimberly Curly, told the television station.

According to the Semien family, the woman at the cemetery had a contract in her hands, which read, “The Right of Burial of the Remains of White Human Beings.”

“She had this paperwork in her hand that she said was drawn up 70 plus years ago,” Semien’s daughter, Shayla Semien, told KATC. “If we really wanted to have him buried here, we would have to get board approval because he was a colored man.”

Vizena confirmed that the contract dated to the 1950s and that striking the language from the contract had never been addressed.

“It never came up,” Vizena told KPLC. “I take full responsibility for that. I’ve been the president of this board for several years now. I take full responsibility for not reading the bylaws.”

The employee who denied the Semien family burial plot was fired, KATC reported. According to The Associated Press, Vizena said the fired employee was his 81-year-old aunt.

Karla Semien said her family is still angry.

“There was nothing none of us could do, but we did it,” she told KPLC. “And to be told this is like we were nothing. He was nothing? He put his life on the line for them.”

In a Facebook post Sunday, the Allen Parish Sheriff’s Office said Darrell Semien served in the transport division of the sheriff’s office and also served as a patrolman for the Reeves Police Department.

“He served with honor and will be deeply missed,” the sheriff’s office wrote in the post.

Vizena said he apologized to the family and offered one of his own plots in the small cemetery, the AP reported. He said the offer was rejected.

According to his obituary, Darrell Semien will be buried at Sonnier Cemetery in Oberlin.

“My dad wasn’t any man, he was a phenomenal man,” Shayla Semien told KATC. “He was a police officer in this same community for 15 years. He was denied a place to lay because of the color of his skin.”

“Everybody dies,” Curly told KPLC. “They bleed the same. You die. You’re the same color. Death has no color, so why should he be refused?”

“It’s a stain that’s going to be on our cemetery and our community for a long time,” Vizena told the AP. “But we’re going to fix it.”